In 1942, two years after the German invasion of the Netherlands, Johan Van Hulst - the son of a furniture upholsterer - was the principal of a Christian training college in Amsterdam. The school was in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Plantage just east of the city center. Across the road from Van Hulst’s school was the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a former theater seized by the Nazis in 1941 to be used as a deportation center for the Jews of Amsterdam. In total, 107,000 Jews in the Netherlands were sent to death camps; only 5,200 survived. Historians believe about 46,000 people were deported from the old theater over an 18-month period, up until the end of 1943. Most of the Jews who were deported ended up at concentration camps in Westerbork in the Netherlands, or Auschwitz and Sobibor in occupied Poland. Sadly, most did not survive.
The deportation center’s administrator was a German-Jewish man named Walter Süskind, entrusted to run the center by Nazis who disregarded his Jewish heritage because of his SS links. Soon after starting his work there, however, he noticed that it was easy to help people escape. He falsified arrival numbers, claiming for example that 60 people instead of 75 had arrived on a particular day, and then letting 15 people escape. He made hundreds of children vanish from the administrative records after they had been forcibly separated from their parents. His task became easier when, in early 1943, the Nazis took over a crèche (nursery school) across the road from the theater - next door to Van Hulst’s school - to place the Jewish children there before deporting them to concentration camps. Süskind joined forces with the head of the crèche, Henriëtte Pimentel, sneaking children to safety. When Pimentel persuaded Van Hulst to join them, their rescue efforts picked up speed. Their buildings were separated at the back by a hedge. The crèche’s nurses would pass children over the hedge to Van Hulst, who would in turn pass them on to Resistance groups who would help hide them. None of the children - whose departures were all agreed by their parents - had been registered by Süskind as new arrivals, so their disappearances were not spotted. In order to hide their rescue efforts, they needed to keep on uncomfortably good terms with the Nazis. Van Hulst had one trick to convince the Nazis he was on their side. His students would be watching the SS guards and he would shout at the students, “Let these people do their job, it’s none of your business,” while winking at the SS guards, trying to gain their trust. He performed this act quite regularly in order to gain their confidence. He succeeded in earning the trust of the SS and thus, he was able to rescue over 600 hundred Jewish children, by spiriting them away to resistance movements and safety. The rescuers needed a degree of good fortune too and it was divinely provided. When the Germans sent an inspector to Van Hulst’s school without warning, she heard babies crying inside. Thankfully, the inspector was not a German and she just happened to be a member of the Resistance. From then on, she too, joined Van Hulst’s efforts to move the children to safety.
The end of the operation, when it came, was sudden. Henriëtte Pimentel was arrested in July 1943, and was killed in Auschwitz in September that year. Walter Süskind, a German Jew, received the same fate. That same month, it was announced suddenly that the crèche was to be cleared out. Many children remained inside, and not all could be rescued. “That was the most difficult day of my life. I only think about what I have not been able to do, about those few thousand children I could not save,” Van Hulst said in 2015. Van Hulst managed to keep his school open throughout the war, and continued his work in the Resistance. He spent the last few weeks of the war in hiding, having been alerted that Nazis were coming to arrest him only minutes before they arrived. His old school now houses the National Holocaust Museum. While Van Hulst rarely spoke of what he did in the war, others highlighted how important his contribution was. In 1972, he was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, a title given to non-Jews who helped rescue and save Jews in the war. “We say, those who save one life saves a universe,” Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu told Van Hulst in 2015. “You saved hundreds of universes.” Johan Van Hulst, who was credited with saving more than 600 Jewish babies and children during World War II, died March 22, 2018 in Amsterdam. He was 107.
big words - “We say, those who save one life saves a universe,” Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu told Van Hulst in 2015. “You saved hundreds of universes.”